This Divisiveness Isn't Fair

I’ve had a couple of intense political moments in the last few days. The first was the reading at the Rio Grande County Museum, the second at Safeway, one of the community meeting places in this small town.

Because my reading was pitched to and for veterans, there were three in attendance. I don’t know that book readings are usually a thing men get all jazzed about, but those three men were there and attentive. Two wore hats that proclaimed their veteran status, the branch in which they belonged and the war they were involved in.

Otherwise here, in a definite “flyover” area, you can bet that most voters will be conservative — and they are. The next county — Alamosa — tends to blue or purple. My county is staunchly red. My understanding of the people in my county is that they are old-time Republicans, but they continue voting Republican out of custom or because, generally speaking, locally, the old time style of Republican is still here. They’re not all Fox News fans, either. Some of them I know best are avid viewers of PBS. They are throwbacks to another time and another political philosophy.

My friend Lois tends to be liberal in her political views, more than I am. But we both despise Donald Trump and the Republicans in power who persecuted Obama with the birther BS and who stymie any good legislation coming out of the now Democrat controlled House. We think a lot of things are just palpably, objectively wrong — caging kids at the border of Mexico, for one; taking food stamps away from hungry people, for another. The list is pretty long. My bet is that many of the Republicans around me feel the same way.

Politics is kept under cover here for a couple of reasons. One is the old-fashioned belief that a person has a right to his/her free vote and opinions. You don’t ask anyone how they voted and you don’t judge them based on that. But, primarily because it’s a harsh place to live and we need each other. We know we don’t agree with everyone, but what’s the point of aggression because, when the chips are down, we might need help getting plowed out of our alley or a turkey for our family for Thanksgiving or a coach for a junior soccer team? When everything is said and done, whatever happens in Washington, we’re stuck with each other and we know it.

The intensity came when my friend Lois wrote about the experience of being in the company of all these kind, interested, aware people, one in particular, a man who happens to be a county commissioner. He was very affected by what I read somehow and I think it shook him up — I don’t know how or why.

My friend wrote this last night after she returned home.

I placed the first ornament on the tree this afternoon as Bette Midler sings the Christmas version of “From A Distance” in the background. Michael has cranked up the volume and sings along with all his heart. His voice cracks with emotion when the chorus comes around.

“God is watching us
God is watching us
God is watching us from a distance
From a distance you look like my friend
Even though we are at war
From a distance I just cannot comprehend
What all this fightings for”

My eyes tear up as he sings and I gaze at my new favorite ornament. This little painting was created by the loving hand of my Monte Vista sister. To me, it embodies the spirit of the San Luis Valley which is one of my favorite little pieces of Heaven.

This past weekend I met a handful of folks that came to listen to Martha’s book reading at the Del Norte Museum. They heard about the event from the local radio and newspaper. I enjoyed listening to the conversation after the event and the quickness in which a camaraderie was established. As the last cowboy (rancher/city councilman/preacher) was leaving, I bade him a hardy “Happy Holidays.”

He looked at me with an odd expression for a long second before turning to go. I wondered if he was disappointed that I didn’t say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” After all, he shook my hand at least three times in the course of the afternoon. Hadn’t we just engaged in lively conversation extolling the virtues of the valley and the people it contained?

It wasn’t until later in the evening in a conversation about political divides did it occur to me how both that cowboy and I might have misconstrued our parting. I was concerned that he thought my use of the word “holiday” was somehow a subtle attack on Christmas. Perhaps it was confusing to see me in my gingerbread Christmas sweater and Santa earrings not using the correct greeting to indicate I was on the “right team.”

Or it is just as likely that he wasn’t quite sure which exit to use to get to his car. His pause and odd expression might have had nothing to with me. Perhaps it was my own bias that lead to an erroneous conclusion. 

Politics be damned and all those talking heads that would keep us perpetually angry at those with differing opinions. I have to think that hanging a wreath on a barbed-wire fence under the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo mountains is something we could share regardless of our differences real or imagined. 

From a distance God is watching us. And I still don’t understand what all this fighting’s for. Just go hang a wreath where it is needed most. Put a bit of peanut butter and seed in the pinecones for the birds and some grain in the boughs for the deer. Let peace on Earth begin with me.

I responded that I didn’t think he thought anything at all about her saying “Happy Holidays.” People say that in the San Luis Valley all the time. I felt something in the afternoon had shaken him somehow, but I don’t know what.

But it made me think of how the news media and the words coming out of the fat orange man are designed to pit “us” against “them.” I don’t know — and have never encountered, even in California, anyone who was upset or offended hearing “Merry Christmas,” but Offal would have us think that gentle greeting is under assault by the “PC Liberals.” There have been times my Merry Christmas was met by “Happy Hanuka.” I just feel loved when that happens. Lois’ point about the “talking heads” keeping us “perpetually angry at those with differing opinions” is well taken. If we allow them to affect us that way, we’re the fools.

And then…

Today I was at Safeway and I saw an old man in a wheelchair. I thought I recognized him. He was looking hard at me, too. Finally, as I was leaving, I went to him and said, “Richard, is that you?”

He smiled his radiant smile. Richard Gottlieb (god’s love) is a WW II Veteran who fought in WW II in Italy. That’s not all he is. He was an Eagle Scout leader on a national scale, a hiker, mountaineer, volunteer at the Sand Dunes, his stories are fascinating and varied. When the war was over and he got liberty, his commanding officer said, “Go see Italy,” and gave him some money (as I recall the story). Richard, probably inspired by The Merchant of Venice, went to see the synagogue in Venice. That was the Italy he wanted to know.

The second time I met Richard — about a year after I moved here — he embarrassed me by saying, at dinner, “What a beautiful young woman.” I reminded him of that today. “It’s true,” he said. “You just have to look in the mirror.”

He told me he had recently lost his best friend to cancer. “I thought I’d go first,” he said. “The big C. He was young, only in his early 70s.” I expressed my sympathy, remembering how my own grandma stopped caring much about life when none of her old friends were around anymore.

We chatted about health. He said, “You’re getting around well,” remembering, I guess, when I wasn’t which would have been when we last met.

“I got a new hip last year,” I said. “That makes two. I’m amazed I don’t clank when I walk around.”

He laughed. He might be 94 but he’s very very sharp. “Hard for you at the airport.”

“Yeah, I tell them, they pull me out of line and embarrass me in front God and everyone.”

“Dividing us. That’s what they’re trying to do, set us against each other. Martha, that’s not what I fought for. It makes me so sad.”

Reading at the Rio Grande County Museum in Del Norte

Part of my mindset is still in the complicated crowded California world where it takes a long time to get anywhere and a long time to do anything. It’s OK with me if I NEVER fully get that I’m not there because it gives me the chance to be beautifully surprised, as I was yesterday.


The plan yesterday was to drive to South Fork where I was going to meet up with a woman who was buying three tiny paintings. There was a large art and craft show in the Rio Grande Club — a fancy country club along the Rio Grande in the semi-resort town of South Fork. “Semi” because people live in South Fork, but “resort” because there is an enormous subdivision of large and beautiful houses that are occupied mostly in summer.

I saw people I know, and they said things like, “I heard you on the radio!” I was flustered by that, hit again by the fact that we just don’t know that much about where we are a lot of the time. We live in a little tunnel of our immediate concerns, our habits and what’s right in front of our faces. It’s necessary that we live that way, and surprising when we learn that somehow WE were in someone else’s immediate concerns and right before someone else’s eyes. I knew the interviews would be broadcast, but I was chiefly concerned with showing up and doing a decent job. I didn’t think of people listening ON PURPOSE.

The craft show was lovely, and very large, filling all the banquet rooms upstairs in the country club. Lois shopped successfully for Christmas and I found my customer.

Mr. Haefeli

I had a conversation with a young guy who is the scion of one of the San Luis Valley families that has been in the bee-keeping honey making business for generations. I learned that they had come originally from the German speaking part of Switzerland and in Switzerland they also kept bees. I asked where in Switzerland they had come from, but he didn’t know. I revealed my “Schneebeli” ancestry and told him my name means “Little Snow Ball.”

Over the course of the day I met three people who’s ancestors came from the German speaking part of Switzerland and all of them had stories like that of the Schneebelis.

From there we headed back down the mountain to Del Norte for lunch and then to the museum. I wanted to get there early to help set up.


I got there and Louise great-grandson had gotten a haircut. He’d also burned his tongue testing the coffee. He told me he’d tested the coffee to be sure it wasn’t poisoned before giving it to Louise. I was charmed.

We set out a few chairs, maybe seven or eight. I didn’t expect people — just my friends and Louise and Rita who work at the museum. BUT…

People kept coming. Pretty soon there were (I think) fifteen people there. The youngest was Louise’ great-grandson who’s maybe 10; the oldest were well into their eighties. Most were retired people like me. We kept putting out chairs. Then I introduced the reading but I did a poor job. I forgot to give the title of the book OH WELL.

The reading went very very well. I could see interest and sympathy spread across the faces of the people in my audience. It was a wonderful, magical, thing to see. The reading had been publicized as being a Pearl Harbor Day remembrance, focused on the Chinese I met who spoke American English and who had worked with the American military at the end of WW II. The stories are really incredible and so unknown that they are interesting.

Afterward, I sold three books, gave out many business cards and talked to the people who’d come to listen, two of which revealed Swiss ancestry. Mennonites back in the day, just like my grandma’s family. This makes me think maybe I should give a reading about the Swiss Protestant Reformation since it’s the reason so many of us are here.

Again I realized how much fun it is to share my words with living, breathing people who are in front of me. I read a small piece from Martin of Gfenn and it so touched one of the women who came listen — a beautiful Hispanic grandma there with her sister — that she came up to tell me in passionate, elegant prose the story of Lazarus and Dives. “Can I get your books at the library?” she asked.

“In Alamosa. Monte Vista won’t stock them. I don’t know about your library here in Del Norte.”

“Why not?”

“They’re self-published.”

“What difference does that make? Your books are good, and I want to read them,” she said.

“Alamosa is serious about local authors,” I said, and shrugged. I would have handed her a copy of Martin of Gfenn right then and there if people hadn’t been around and I wasn’t generally there to give books away, but I actually LIKE giving books away so… She introduced herself to me and her name means “Star of the Mountains.”

BUT…. As wonderful as all of this was, the high point was Louise’ great-grandson looking at me and saying, “I really liked your story.”


Featured photo: Rabbit brush flats between Del Norte and Monte Vista, CO, 3:30 pm December 7, 2019, winter light. Taken by Lois Maxwell

Back to the Future

A week or so after Thanksgiving I was at the BIG STORE in the BIG CITY (City Market in Alamosa). I really wanted to bake a mincemeat pie. Last year I made one for Thanksgiving dinner at my friend’s house and I had a dim idea of where the mincemeat might be — in a random temporary display someplace between the craft beer and the frozen pizza.

I looked everywhere and couldn’t find it.


At the check stand I asked, “Do you know where I would find mincemeat?”

Young checker gives me a blank look and says, “In the meat department.” Her eyes add, “You idiot.”

“It’s not meat. It’s pie filling.”

“Pie filling is on aisle 4.”

“It’s not there. Last year it had it’s own little display in a random place.”

The checker looks at me with that deer in the headlights expression. Meanwhile an elderly Hispanic farmer has taken a spot in line behind me. He’s wearing a black serape over his Carhart jacket and jeans. He is built like a bomb and has two teeth, but even so he has a beautiful smile. He says, in English, “I know what that is.” In Spanish he mentions two New Mexico — one empanadas — holiday pastries that use mincemeat. “I haven’t had that in a long time.”

The bagger, who’s 12, says, “I can find it,” and takes off. My groceries are checked through and I pay for them. The bagger comes back. “Look in the canned meat,” she says to me. I shrug.

As I am leaving, an older stock person says, “We might have it closer to Christmas.”

“Thanks,” I answer, seeing a future in which no one has eaten mincemeat pie.



Today I’m going to “do” some of the Christmas things there are to do here in the “hood.” My friend Lois is here from Colorado Springs to hear my reading, give me moral support and hang out. I sold three little paintings and I have to deliver them to their buyer who will be in South Fork today at an art and craft show, so Lois and I will go up there, deliver the goods, see what there is to see, then go to Del Norte in time for me to help at the museum if I’m needed and then I’ll read from Baby Duck and, I hope, a bit from Martin of Gfenn.

In preparation for Lois visit, I made a mincemeat pie. Lois said as we ate some pie, “I bet most people alive today have never tried this.” I think she’s right.

Take that, future. You won’t know what you’ll be missing.

P.S. In other news, yesterday I took the ankle brace off. I realized IT hurt more than my foot did, meaning, it was hurting my foot. My foot is finally doing better. I’m cautiously happy about this. I’d be jubilant, but that’s too risky.

What Are You Doing For the Holidays? Tips For Coping

Good thoughts and advice for living through Christmas…

Living on the Circumference - Finding the Center

Many people love this time of year. They happily answer questions about their holiday plans. They start with Halloween and keep the party going until New Year’s Day. Every season of the year brings out themed decorations, but nothing compares to Christmas. I know people who put up at least four Christmas trees in their houses – full sized trees! The outside of the house sparkles with lights and lawn ornaments. They love to bake, throw parties, and make the most of the time they can spend with family and friends.

vcm_s_kf_repr_832x624~2 Santa Visiting Neighborhood

For many people, this time of year is stressful, which can bring on anxiety and depression. Asking them about the holidays brings up difficult emotions. There can be a lot of pressure to visit family that requires traveling. Some people experience lonliness during the holidays; possibly because they are alone or they don’t have family nearby…

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Trolled by the Future

Yesterday I wrote a thought piece about writing. When I wrote it, I was thinking about what I write, basically, which is serious literature. I used the word “serious” to mean, you know, serious. Serious, not better, not important, but serious. Anyone who’s read any of my books knows they are serious shit. Leprosy? The Protestant Revolution? Depression and the Crusades? Crossing the Atlantic and dying enroute? Betrayal? This is about as serious as it gets, I think. I’m kind of writing a novel now and am having a hard time figuring out some important things like which of two characters is the protagonist.

Most important about the now deleted post, it doesn’t make a point at all. It’s me thinking.

In the trolled post (since deleted) I mentioned how, at a book-signing a conference of writers of historical fiction I attended, another writer pointed out that most of the historical fiction represented there was “bodice rippers.” I’d never heard the term before. He made the point that he didn’t think that’s what I wrote. I wrote about the (rather disturbing, surreal) image of suddenly (at the end of the reading) women suddenly appearing in costume, most of which involved corsets worn outside their clothes or approximating Victorian underwear. They were having a great time; I wasn’t. I envied them and was simultaneously disgusted by them. It was very uncomfortable and still inexplicable. Anyway, I left and had dinner with friends.

I wrote about how I think I’m a pretty decent writer, but no agent or publisher has picked up my books which, of course, makes me doubt myself. Is it because what I write is so serious? Who really wants to read about leprosy or the Protestant Reformation? I don’t think anyone wakes up thinking, “Oh man, if I just had a good story about a leper.” I wrote that my editor (whom I pay) described my writing as “sophisticated,” and I wrote that I don’t know what she means. I don’t, and when I asked her, I didn’t get an answer. Do I think my writing is sophisticated? I have no fucking clue.

I wrote about how I’ve been watching film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels, how Jane was unknown in her time and now? What would she think if she knew? If she saw such leading lights as Kiera Knightly or Emma Thompson traipsing around in period garb on the big screen? Her novels look at the people around her, daily life is well represented, and while many of the characters hang on some rung of minor nobility, they are not kings and queens. Great matters of international destiny are not addressed in her books — not directly anyway (see Mansfield Park which obliquely contends with the slave trade in Barbados). Austen writes from and within a world that was once called “the woman’s sphere.”

One of her books — Northanger Abbey — pokes gentle fun at “gothic novels,” the bodice rippers of her time. She doesn’t criticize the novels; her criticism is leveled at people who believe they represent reality.

Expecting to hear about women writers who took a male nom de plume or wrote using initials, I then wrote about a writer — A.C. Barnard — who made a living and supported the family — mother, father and sister — by writing serialized gothic stories. Then, one day, this writer wrote straight from the heart, and out came a book that has been made into at least 15 filmed versions — big and little screen — as well as an opera and stage plays. The first film version was made in 1912 and the most recent in 2019.

Never did I say “bodice rippers” or their cohort, “romance novels,” are inferior to what I write. I don’t think so. But they are not serious. They are not meant to be. And if they were suddenly, serious, they would be something else altogether. My “troll” went off on a whole rant accusing me of being “elitist” and various other post-1980 terms used in academia to address the socially privileged, stuff written by “dead white men.” She appears to be from the generation that was taught to look at Hemingway as a misogynist rather than looking at his writing. Uh, sweet-cheeks, no. But…

Some literature is intrinsically better than other literature. I’m sorry. I know you were taught otherwise, but yeah. Some literature is fantastic, but so of a historical moment that its greatness fades in time. I’ve seen that happen with a lot of books over the course of my life, books like Black Like Me that end up being read in history classes or studies of “1960s American Literature” or something like that. Jane Austen’s work is an example of what I would call really great literature. She — all on her own without any social support for her work — found the pulse of the human heart. Does she tell “great” stories? Serious stories? Not really. Really good literature entertains — and even now the adventures of Odysseus have that power. And what is entertainment? Something more than the genitalia must be engaged, yet something more than the brain must be engaged. The great literature has the ability to exist in the domain of the bodice ripper and the domain of more serious themes.

She accused me of writing a “humble-brag,” and no, it wasn’t. I think anyone who is serious (oh that word again) about their writing is going to care about where their work fits into the world of finished work, especially, maybe, when they embark (as I have embarked) on a new project. It’s a very vague moment — who am I as a writer? What do I do? What do I want to do? What do I want to do differently than I’ve done in the past? Anything?

So…I naturally checked out her blog. Very erudite, very focused on popular literature and its value (which I don’t dispute — my thesis was basically on popular fiction of the mid-19th century) and a kind of oblique vindication of romance novels. Well, sweet-cheeks if you’re reading this, first, romance fiction doesn’t need to be justified. I can’t write it. I’ve tried. People should read and write whatever they want and derive from it whatever is there for them to derive. The historical bodice ripper? I can’t do it. There are some chapters in my serious novels where people get blow jobs and have sex with their brother’s wife, other scenes when their long-term yearning results in the miracle of requited love, but those scenes don’t drive the stories. You made the (salient) point that anyone who reads (or writes) romance novels has first and foremost to be interested in romance. I’m not. No judgment there, it’s just not a “thing” for me. I completely agree that the yearning for love and sex drive the world on every level for every species, but it’s not my metier in life or in writing.

Anyway, I ended up feeling really crappy after reading that comment. I felt like I had collided with a future I didn’t like when it was in the process of emerging. It was a future that made me happy I didn’t teach literature. I saw that future on the horizon when I first saw The Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature. How did the more-or-less accidental appearance (or non-appearance) of certain genitalia turn into a literary genre? I honestly couldn’t fathom it. To me — then and now — literature is apart from the writer because the writer and his/her world will pass into oblivion. The writing might remain and those who have sense of historical responsibility will attempt to learn what they can about the world in which that writer lived, but we can never know the assumptions, beliefs, struggles or anything, really, about the back-story of the existence of people in the past. To me that matters. I abhor slavery but I also realize I’m not living then or there, in the Maryland of my ancestor who was a slave-holder. That man’s descendant went on to marry the daughter of a lineage that first opposed slavery in Pennsylvania. How in the world could I ever comprehend that? And can I judge it? I don’t feel I have the right.

Another Radio Spot

I just got back from the big city of Alamosa. I went to the KRZA radio station to do an interview about the China book and what I plan to read/talk about this coming Saturday. It was another interesting interview, and it was cool to meet the program director, Mike Clifford, who did this interview and the earlier one.

If you want to listen in, it will air tomorrow, December 4, at 8 am MST and again at 7:30 PM MST. I got to talk a little bit about Switzerland and Martin of Gfenn.

You can stream it here, by scrolling down to the KRZA Live Stream button and then clicking on the play arrow on the next page that opens.

Trail Fail… Responding to Wild Sensibility's Challenge…

If you spend time in the outdoors, eventually something will go wrong. It’s a law of nature. But if you survive, those epic failures become the best stories! We’ve all read about amazing accomplishments in the wild, but now it’s time to tell us about the not-so-great times and what you learned from them. Share your best #EpicTrailFail stories on your own page, include this paragraph as a header, and then provide a link in the comments here or here. We’ll curate and circulate the best stories in future posts. We can’t wait to read about what you’ve survived!
Arionis of Just A Small Cog and Rebecca of Wild Sensibility.


Back in my thirties, forties, and into my fifties, when my right hip went south (without me) I ran miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles on narrow rocky trails in the California chaparral and in the mountains east of San Diego. I ran up and down hills like a bitch. Everyone said, “You should be careful! You’re going to hurt yourself!” but I never did. Never. Not once.


The trail and I were as one. I felt those trails beneath my feet with the same knowledge with which we know the lines on our own hands. No one could keep up with me let alone catch me.

I bet you can’t even SEE the trail…

Why once — when I hit the trails to run off a disappointment — I ran up the steepest ‘face’ of one of the ‘mountains’, down the other side and up the next mountain. I didn’t know there was a guy running behind me, trying to catch up. When I finally stopped, and the guy caught up, he said, “Damn, woman, you’re fast. I’m fast, but I couldn’t catch up. Do you do this all the time?”

I gave the guy a hard look and thought, “That’s one fit dude,” and answered, “Pretty much every day.”

But pride goeth or love hurts or something and I fell in love. No, not with the guy who chased me. The guy’s name was Mike, and he was (IMO) beautiful and very smart. It turned out to be a pretty good short-term relationship, too, and it ended in friendship that was even nicer than the relationship. But this was the beginning when people are incoherent, babbling fountains of unasked questions, reading each other’s faces and looks and gestures. He was also 15 years younger, and that was one reason for all the incoherent babbling and face reading. It was a little scary. We hung out a lot as friends and had a blast. But as happens, the friendship grew and hit the infamous When Harry Met Sally moment. Neither of us was sure about it. Meanwhile, we kept hanging out, eating dinner, going to movies, talking, hiking, and riding mountain bikes and stuff.

Then, one quiet Sunday afternoon we went to Balboa Park. Balboa Park is near the top of any San Diego sightseer’s list. It is the location of the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Museum of Art. Many of its beautiful buildings were built for the American Exposition of 1915. It sits at the top of a mesa not far from the harbor and downtown. It is completely and totally flat. As flat as the valley in which I live now.

Mike and I wandered around, talking and (gasp) holding hands. As we talked I realized this was that miraculous, rare thing called “requited love.” Inside I felt like a million Lawrence Welk bubbles were dancing in my heart. I was so happy that I turned to physical anarchy to release my emotions. There was a small square of grass, small wooden stakes pounded into the earth on each corner, encircled by a flimsy white string about 18 inches above the ground. I did a perfect scissors jump over it and then another over the other side. And then I screamed like all the tortures of hell had suddenly found my left knee to be inexorably damned. I’d landed with my knee hyper-extended not knowing, when I jumped, how much lower the ground was on THIS side of the string than the the side I’d jumped from.

Star marks the spot

Mike helped me up, got me to my Ford Ranger and I drove home. “Walk it off, Kennedy,” echoing in my mind, but when I stepped out of my truck, I collapsed. My knee wasn’t going to hold me. I managed to stand up and limp to my house, let myself in and get past the dogs to the phone.

“Mike, I need to go to the ER.”

Sometime later — a year or so — Mike and I were no longer an “item.” He was in college taking a keyboarding class. One day, in the mail, I got his homework…

War Memorial in the Back of Beyond

Cold in the back of beyond — single digits but still above 0 F ( +4 F/-15 C), and I didn’t need to let the dogs out at 5 (they weren’t even awake) but I did which means leaving the back door open a little. OH well. It’s cold in the house, but if I’m either surprised or upset, I’m an idiot. You might say, “No, you’re an idiot for leaving the door open,” and I wouldn’t dispute that.

Yesterday I took the little paintings to the Rio Grande County Museum in Del Norte. Incredibly beautiful windy ground-blizzardy day, jewel clear and dazzling. The display turned out to be a couple of lilac branches stuck into some modeling clay. It’s kind of cute, but somewhat unstable.

Trying out the display at home…

The little paintings have their own table in a room that is otherwise reserved for the Rio Grande County Veterans’ stories. Louise Colville, the museum director, has not only put hours of work, but hours of heart into it. On a counter are notebooks that hold the stories of the veterans of all the wars up to (and including) the current fracas. Each veteran has all the pages he/she needs to tell their story. “I had to stop for a while,” she told me yesterday, “it was just too sad.” Many of the pages include photos of grave markers and the obituaries of those who were killed in action.

Now think of this. ALL of WW II has two, slender, three ring binders. WW I has one. There is a Civil War Veteran. The binders are not full to over flowing. Each typed page is placed into a plastic leaf so people can read the stories easily without wrecking the paper. There is so much information in the way the notebooks have been assembled, clearly illustrating how few people have lived here and how precious each person is. This is a database that can’t be Googled. If a kid wanted to research WW II Veterans of Rio Grande County, he or she could find excellent first person sources, but they would have to go to the museum. There are small museums like this one all over America, treasuries of local history, labors of love that are unknown for the most part.

On the wall are some photos — most from Vietnam, naturally, as photos before then might have fallen by the way if they even existed. It was pretty intense. “The only thing that kept my father out of WW II,” said Louise, “was that he was the only son of a farmer.” Her comment made me think about some woman in Denver who, on a Facebook post back in 2016, asked “What’s so damned important about farmers?” I guess they knew the answer to that back in WW II.

As is always the case in the San Luis Valley, we shared stories and opinions. And, small political statement, I’m 100% sure we did not vote the same way in the last major election but I am also 100% sure we agree on most things. I felt again the immense distance between the government in Washington and a tiny county museum in the back of beyond.

The museum is a haven for the objects of the lives of the people who have lived here pretty much since the beginning.

“The earliest settlers here came with the Spanish conquistadors. Their descendants are here in the valley,” Louise tells me, her voice filled with wonderment. I share her wonderment. That bit of history is one of the things that attracted me here in the first place.

An exhibit of clothing at the Rio Grande County Museum

My Lives as a Famous Artist

OK, first of all, we all know I’m writing “tongue in cheek” when I describe myself with the word “famous”…

There have been a few times when I’ve been completely absorbed in making visual art. One of them I was working for the Denver YWCA and being paid in art supplies. I could go to Meiningers in Denver and buy anything I needed and keep whatever I didn’t use. Everyone knew I was buying extra; I had a quiet mandate from the YWCA director to do just that. Five sheets of watercolor paper for posters and five sheets in case I failed.

It was great. I did illustrations for brochures and posters for events. I couldn’t afford art supplies at all on my graduate student stipend but working for the Y, I ended up with nice watercolors and silk-screen equipment. For an art table, I used the dining room table. As part of this, I got to go to a lot of fancy parties.

A few years later, after the visual art thing had gone underground (as it does) and I was being a “famous” writer, I met a guy named Wes Kennedy who looked uncannily like my brother, Kirk Kennedy. It was a little creepy, but we got to be very close friends. He was determined to become a legit artist. Working in the mailroom of the Denver law firm where I was a paralegal was just a way to eat. He reawakened my sleeping visual artist and we spent most Monday nights in the life drawing sessions that were held at the historic Muddy Waters of the Platte.

Wes was very determined to “get a show.” “I gotta’ get a gallery show, Martha,” he said over and over, like not getting one meant he was a failure, traipsing around town with his work, all done on paper, most in gouache, some in pastel. Finally he got a show and we both lugged his work — now mounted with glass — to the gallery that was showing his work.

Then I, with suddenly a LOT of artwork in my apartment, decided to see if I could get a show. I didn’t have any particular drive to get a show in a gallery. I just wanted to hang it up somewhere. I lugged some of my stuff to a coffee house, Nepenthes, and they said, “Sure.” That pissed off Wes to the point where he didn’t talk to me for a month or so after saying, “I try for a YEAR to get a show, and you just go to Nepenthes?” and he slammed the door behind him, not thinking of the difference between a show in a coffee house and a show in a gallery but OH WELL. But he showed up the night before my show and said, “You can’t carry your shit in your Bug. I’ll take your stuff in the morning and help you hang it,” and he did.

I take myself seriously as a writer, but have never taken myself seriously as a visual artist. As I’ve been working on these little Christmas tree decoration paintings which teeter the line between “craft” and “art,” I thought about that. My mom was the opposite of supportive of my brother’s and my “forays” (Kirk did somewhat more than make forays) into the life of an artist. She was objectively nasty about it. “Art’s a dirty word in this house!” she would proclaim. She really hated it, and since I lived to please her, I kind of knuckled under.

I’m grateful for her attitude as I sit here typing a blog post at the “end of the day.” As I’ve been painting pretty much all day every day for the past week or so I’ve had a blast. It’s fun discovering what a period of dormancy has nurtured and what the Valley has taught me in the interval. I did some good watercolors last winter and a good oil, and then, nothing. Painting these little landscapes as been so much fun — and I realized that many artists do small “studies” of something they might hope to paint “for real.” One of the little paintings is just that. At 2 x 3 inches it could emerge quickly and naturally, an idea that’s been incubating for nearly 2 years. If my mom had been supportive, I don’t think this would have been half as much fun over the years. I would have been driven to make a living from it and 1) I’m not that good, 2) it would have eliminated visual art from my life as a source of joy.

As I drove to Del Norte yesterday — only to find the museum closed — and looked at the various edges of a storm front reaching and receding over the San Juans here and there, I was, as always, captivated by the light and colors. Winter is incredibly beautiful (to me) here. All shades of white, gold, silver, gray and cerulean. All in motion, changing all the time. As I drove these beautiful scenes seemed to go straight into my heart, skipping my eyes and mind completely. And I thought, “I’ve lived here long enough now that this is part of me. It come into my heart through my eyes and comes out again, transformed, through my hands.”

(Featured photo is Wes hanging one of my paintings at Cafe Nepenthes)